When Mrs. Bennet complains of her “poor nerves” and her husband sardonically replies that he is long acquainted with them, we as readers of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are to laugh. The laughter may die into an awkward chuckle when the reader is a 40ish-year-old woman and realizes that most likely Mrs. Bennet is as well. While her daughters come of age and dance at balls and flirt with officers, Mrs. Bennet is perhaps experiencing perimenopause or menopause and the end of one stage of a woman’s life.
When women’s lives are divided into maid, mother, crone, it is easy to overlook the moment between early motherhood and old age. How did (and how do) women deal with life in their forties when their children are entering that “most interesting” and “most trying” times of their lives while they themselves are in “the most dangerous”? Are they objects of ridicule? Paragons of wisdom? Are they even visible at all?
Menopause in Early Modern England (and Now)
As a 43 -year-old woman, I am finding that perimenopause, like greatness, is something that one finds thrust upon you. It is also something that people do not discuss much even in 2019.
When Deanna Raybourn pronounced herself a “crone” on Twitter and welcomed questions about her newly menopausal state, numerous women responded. Here at last was someone opening up in a public way about what has been considered a private milestone and offering to give advice to others in the process. It was an act of bravery and of generosity and a welcome opening for people to talk more publicly about their bodies.
Menopause was a rarely spoken and private subject in the eighteenth century as well. In the late eighteenth century (that conduct book loving age), the “first popular guidebooks for the menopausal woman appeared, some of which were reportedly sold out in a few months” (Stolberg 412). Laura Gowing finds that “[i]t is still hard to recover women’s knowledge and interpretations of the body” (10), and most discussions of menopause are to be found in medical journals but not in women’s diaries or letters.
Then, as now, menopause generally arrived at age 50 but a woman was not considered old until 60 when it was certain she could no longer conceive. Menopause was called “the cessation of terms” or “flowers” or “courses” (Read 37). As Gowing notes, “Much vernacular printed discussion of the female body was specifically aimed at helping women conceive. Sexual difference was discussed not in abstract terms but as the basis for heterosexual sex and conception” (19). This means that when women are no longer fertile, their bodies are no longer objects of medical interest.
However, some historians see menopause as a “socially induced set of symptoms” and suggest that “modern physicians may have created a problem of personal identity” (Crawford 25). Women most likely experienced actual symptoms–medical records show complaints of “flashings”–but those symptoms were subsumed in general ideas of old age. Michael Stolberg explains that “[a]round 1740, an anonymous English practitioner marketed his secret purgatives and uterine drops against the disorders ‘that most women labor under, when being between forty and fifty years’” (422). With no medical cure for the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause, some women relied on quack cures for help. Even now in the twenty-first century no real relief exists and women are told to take herbal supplements, exercise, do yoga, and eat right. Turning to doctors for symptom alleviation was and is a fruitless endeavor.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have been married for 23 years (Austen 5) when the novel opens. Even if she married at 25, she’d be 48 at the oldest. Most likely she was married at a younger age–Mr. Bennet, “captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour,–that youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to real affection for her” (152). This implies a younger woman, perhaps in her teens. If she married at 18, she is 41 at the novel’s open.
Austen tells us that the Bennets expected an heir for “many years after Lydia’s birth” (197), but if “marital fertility had frequently concluded by age 40” (Botelho 53), this explains the lack of a pregnancy even in a youngish woman. “Reproduction was a public business and women’s bodies a public domain” (Botelho 57), and Mrs. Bennet, who is unable to produce an heir to end the entail, finds her body’s failure to be public indeed. For women who have exchange value as marriagable virgins and use value as fertile wives, their value and their identities had to be in flux in the time between motherhood and grandparenthood. As Patricia Crawford notes, “After her child bearing was over, a woman was no longer powerful and less feared” (32). Mrs. Bennet simply becomes ridiculous.
Her public and ridiculous body becomes symbolic of her failures as a mother. “The female body was a public affair, the target of official regulation, informal surveillance, and regular, intimate touch by women and men,” writes Laura Gowing (16). After Lydia elopes with Wickham, the spectacle of Mrs. Bennet’s hysterical but non-sexual body replaces the spectacle of Lydia’s sexualized body in her home. The family is afraid of Mrs. Bennet’s loud cries and talk with Hill, but Hill and the other servants would know the bodies of all the women in the household well. Women’s bodies may be considered private but “most houses were built around shared space” (Gowing 23), and five menstruating daughters produced a lot of linen. What is happening in Mrs. Bennet’s body and, by proxy, the public sexualization of Lydia’s body, has been old news with any of the women scrubbing sheets.
The focus of Pride and Prejudice is on young women’s bodies, on “the most trying age” and “most interesting time” of their lives. Lois Banner quotes one woman’s description of menopause as “the dangerous age”: “between 40 and 50” “‘we are all more or less mad’” (Banner 273). The Bennet household is in a dangerous age–the daughters must be married before their father dies and the entail takes effect, and Mrs. Bennet feels this necessity both in a financial and biological sense. There is no heir. Time has run out. “You do not know what I suffer” (4) and “nobody can tell what I suffer” (76), Mrs. Bennet tells her family.
She also practices old age. “At our time of life”(6), she often says of herself and Mr. Bennet. “It was so pleasant at her time of life to consign her single daughters to the care of their sister, that she might not be obliged to go into company more than she liked,” writes Austen (67). She is trying on cronehood, but in true middle-age fashion, she cannot help but see herself as still young. Mr. Bennet tells her she is as handsome as her daughters, and she does not deny it. She “still loves a red coat in [her] heart” (21). Despite these occasional forays into youth, she seems very aware that menopausal women should shift into being grandmothers which, with the entail, could illuminate her desperation to make five single daughters into five married mothers.
Film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice tend to portray Mrs. Bennet as an older woman even if the actress portraying her is in her 40s. Allison Steadman was 49 when she played Mrs. Bennet in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. Brenda Blethyn was 59 in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice. Sally Phillips is the closest in age to the novel version of Mrs. Bennet at 46 in the 2016 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (IMDB). Movie shorthand for a mother of grown daughters is a woman in her 50s or 60s, which is how Mrs. Bennet is visually constructed. The liminal age of the young women between parents and husbands that is the subject of the films is easily rendered visual: the Bennet sisters are young and beautiful and capless. The liminal age of perimenopause is invisible and elided.
We often to look to Austen for the romcom pattern, for stories about young people growing up, learning about life, and finding love. However, her middle-aged women are just as fascinating. Mrs. Bennet, Miss Bates, Lady Catherine, Lady Russell–and Lady Susan. In Lady Susan, Austen’s 1794 (?) novel, we see an almost middle-aged woman attempting to seduce a younger man who could be her daughter’s suitor. Lady Susan is 35-years-old and a widow but not past childbearing age which makes her both marriageable and dangerous, for as Gowing explains, “Sexually experienced and past the age of child-bearing, imagined as both lustful and undesirable, their [middle-aged women’s] ventures into sexual talk, still less sexual acts, could scarcely be contemplated with equanimity” (22).
“I have seldom seen so lovely a woman as Lady Susan,” writes one character, “and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must be in fact ten years older” (143). Lady Susan flirts with Reginald, a young heir loved by her daughter, and he falls in love with her. When his father hears of a potential marriage with Lady Susan, he writes a warning to Reginald, saying her age is a “material objection,” but her conduct is so egregious that “the difference of even twelve years becomes in comparison of small account” (152). Lady Susan is fleeing a friend’s home after she seduced her friend’s husband, and she takes full advantage of her relatively free position as a widow to indulge her sexual desires. She could be the cliche of the lusty widow but is drawn so well by Austen that the reader can’t help but fall in love with her as well. Lady Susan is a complicated character, a villain as well as a likable protagonist. Her age is made clear in the novel and is a factor within the plot. It is interesting that Austen made a middle-aged women between husbands the main character of a novel in her juvenilia but did not again dwell so closely on older women in her later novels. The adult Austen chose to write about women who were marketable.
As women now talk more about menopause and about the transitions of the 40s, perhaps we can extend those conversations to the middle-aged women on the pages of the novels we read and teach and study. Instead of seeing these women as “old,” we need to recognize that they are in flux and, like their marriageable daughters, their identities are shifting. This dangerous time can be just as interesting as the trying time.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Norton, 1993. Print.
—. Lady Susan. Sanditon and Other Stories. Ed. Peter Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Print.
Banner, Lois. In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. Print.
Botelho, Lynn. “Old Age and Menopause in Rural Women of Early Modern Suffolk.” Women and Ageing in British Society Since 1500. Ed. Lynn Botelho and Pat Thane. London: Pearson, 2001. 43-65. Print.
Crawford, Patricia. Blood, Bodies, and Families in Early Modern England. London: Pearson, 2004. Print.
Gowing, Laura. Common Bodies: Women, Touch, and Power in Seventeenth-Century England. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003. Print.
Read, Sara. Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.
Shail, Andrew and Gillian Howle. Menstruation: A Cultural History. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.
Stolberg, Michael. “A Woman’s Hell?: Medical Perceptions of Menopause in Preindustrial Europe.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 73.3 (1999): 404-428. Print.
A visual version of this paper is available here.